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Professor Pablo Boczkowski on news consumption — and how when you read affects what you read

We wrote in September about Pablo Boczkowski‘s new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Newsroom Abundance. During a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Northwestern communications professor discussed the effects of imitation in the news space, highlighting a troubling paradox: Though we live in a time of abundant information, we also live in a time of homogenization. Repetition is everywhere.

It’s an intriguing phenomenon, but it’s not the only one Boczkowski is studying. Another fascinating aspect of the professor’s research — the aspect, in fact, for which the book is named — is the study he conducted of the environments in which people consume their news. People tend to read the news at work; and that, in turn, skews the news content they consume. (For more on that idea — and for the broader trends it suggests about information consumption and civic life — check out the talk Boczkowski will be giving this evening, with the Lab’s own Josh Benton, as part of MIT’s Communications Forum. If you’re in the Cambridge area, the discussion will take place from 5 to 7 on the MIT campus; it’ll also be recorded and archived.)

When it comes to news, how does where we consume affect what what we consume? Above is a video, shot back in 2009 by former Lab-er Ted Delaney, of Boczkowski discussing the “news at work” ideas and implications; below is its transcript.

…is that the time and place of work has become a very important temporal and spacial location of online news consumption for a fairly large number of people who get the news online. Whereas in the case of traditional media — like print newspapers, television newscasts, radio newscasts — you would get the news before or after work, or going to and from work, but not at the time and place of work. Now, a sizable proportion of the people who get the news online get the news at work. And that has been changing how we get the news, what kind of news we get when we’re at work, and whom we talk to — the person, the people we talk to — when we talk to people about the news at work.

So, for instance, just to give you some examples, when people are at work, they tend to spend first some time, the first time that they visit the news sites during the day, or a number of news sites during the day, they tend to spend time looking at those sites in a routine, comprehensive fashion: They scan the home pages, they click on some stories, and so on and so forth. And then any subsequent visits after that are of much shorter duration, more focused on particular issues. Usually not clicking after that, just browsing on the homepage, looking at a particular story. A coworker said, “Oh, there is a big fire in this neighborhood; oh, have you looked at these poll results from that kind of competition.” People go online, check 15, 20 seconds, maybe a minute — maybe they will look at the first paragraph of the story, then they leave the site.

And the other thing that has happened is that because of the social norms of the workplace, usually it’s not well seen to have conversations with coworkers about politically, for instance, sensitive, or culturally sensitive or contentious issues. And because the people we talk to tend to influence the kinds of news that we get — sometimes to the point that we look at particular news stories because we anticipate having conversations about those stories with, in this case, the people with whom we work.

That tends to steer people away from the consumption of politically sensitive topics, and move them towards consumption of sports stories, stories celebrity stories — topics that are more innocuous, and lighter in terms of workplace conversations. And that also marks an interesting shift to people who for example work in a home environment, in a home office, versus the people who work in an office environment, with many other coworkers. The people who tend to work in an office environment, with other coworkers, and get the news online at work, tend to identify the consumption of online news with the workplace. So when they leave the office, right, because there is that symbolic association between the consumption of news and the workplace, they don’t want, when they’re at home, or it’s the weekend, they don’t want to get the news online. They’re less predisposed, because, at home, it’s not work, so they shouldn’t be doing work-related stuff. Versus the people who work in the home environment, they keep checking news sites after they finish working, right — or, at least, they have a higher chance of doing that — and also spending time looking at news during the weekend.

So these are some of the ways in which the consumption of online news at work has changed some of the habitualized, some of the routine patterns of news consumption that we have seen in traditional media. Sometimes major changes, sometimes intensifying pre-existing habits, and sometimes conforming to what we have known before. For instance, this issue that the people we talk to, the most proximate social relations, are a major factor in shaping what news we get and the kinds of things we talk about.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
With $3.5 million in grant funding and an eye for collaboration, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX aim to bring deep investigations to radio and podcasting.